Why the Liberal Democrats were really demolished at the general election

Nick Clegg preparing for Leaders Debate, April 2015 by Liberal Democrats

The pasting of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats back in the May general election, reducing the party from 56 seats to eight in the Commons, was both widely predicted and widely underestimated.

Since the vote many put down the destruction of the party to contamination from their Conservative coalition partners, with the party themselves complaining that they were often blamed for the bad decisions in government and snubbed for the good ones.

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Nick Clegg: Britain’s ascension to EU was done ‘with a shrug of the shoulders’

Nick Clegg and Evan Davis, October 2015 by Newsnight

The former leader of the Liberal Democrats has been mostly quiet in the wake of his humbling general election defeat in May, happy to let Tim Farron steer what remains of William Gladstone’s party.

Yet Nick Clegg’s appearance on Newsnight this Tuesday showed the politician and former Eurocrat mulling on Britain’s future with Europe, in a rather mild manner for someone who fears the country may be about to make a grave mistake.

“I think the psychological, almost emotional circumstances in which the United Kingdom joined the then European Community were in many ways less emotive than say – if you were the founding member states Germany, France, and so on – peace over war.”

It is a favoured trope of British political commentary that we do not really do ideology, instead preferring to keep our heads down and stick to bean-counting, which many believe will have to be reflected on both sides of the referendum if they want to catch vacillating voters.

The “shrug of the shoulders” that Clegg refers to is also consistent with Britain’s historic commitment to constitutional fudge, as evinced in the lack of a central written constitution, the uneven devolution in the regions and many of the conventions that guide parliamentary life.

He never entirely answers the question of whether Britons feel closer to the Yanks than other Europeans, though there may be something telling in his description of “our cousins in America” – “our cousins in Europe” does not quite convince.

Though Clegg may well be right that leaving the EU could salt our diplomatic relationship with the Americans, it seems unlikely that Britons will ever think of themselves as “European” in the cultural sense implied when it is listed alongside “British” or “English”.

As such it means a vote to stay in the EU probably means a vote to stay in the second tier of the club, outside an increasingly unified eurozone. Whether that is a better option than leaving altogether will be the key question come the referendum.

Image Credit – Nick Clegg and Evan Davis, October 2015, screencap from Newsnight

Farron vs Lamb: What the Lib Dem leadership contest means for the party’s future

One would not have thought that the last month had left the Liberal Democrats with much of a party to squabble over.

On election day a healthy 57 seats in the Commons was reduced to a mere eight. The day after, the party leader Nick Clegg resigned, dejected and almost in tears. And some weeks later Charles Kennedy, who led the party to its greatest strength in Parliament in 2005, was finally toppled by alcohol.

It is therefore surprising that Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, the two men vying to succeed Clegg for the title of chief Liberal, spent much of the hustings at University College London on Wednesday talking about legacy.

Much of this naturally concerned the coalition. Lamb – who having served several roles in government has the greater claim to Clegg’s mantle – was keen to laud the last parliament in bringing about gay marriage, praising former MP Lynne Featherstone for her role in getting it onto the books.

Farron meanwhile looked like he was compensating for the distance between him and the more classically liberal “Orange Bookers”, many of whom set up the coalition in 2010. Almost the first words out of Farron’s mouth were in praise of “a great speech…from the lips of Nick Clegg” – a reference to that painful resignation the morning after the polls.

Both candidates also looked back to the last century, nodding at former Liberal leaders such as Jo Grimond (1956-67), David Steel (1976-88) and of course Kennedy himself (1999-06). “I’m standing in this election because I’m not having the party of Grimond, [former MP David] Penhaligan and Charles Kennedy die on my watch,” Farron insisted.

To be sure, few parties on the fringes of power can claim such a heritage. But whilst the history lesson was welcome to the many new members who had turned up for the hustings, it was the party’s future that had brought the crowd to Logan Hall just off Russell Square.

Lib Dem Hustings, UCL, June 2015

Source: The Right Dishonourable

Farron is indisputably the better speaker, his northern accent lending him an earnest streak that Lamb’s plodding tones cannot match. But more problematic for Lamb is the sense his campaign lacks the coherence of Farron’s, whose speech could be summed up in one phrase: “Inequality is wrong and inequality is immoral.”

Unlike much of Westminster, Farron has made his way to Parliament from genuine strife, having been largely raised by his mother following his parent’s divorce five years after he was born. Early life in Lancashire was what led him to label Margaret Thatcher’s premiership “organised wickedness” back in 2011, a position he hasn’t recanted since.

By comparison Lamb, a former lawyer, appeared on the night to poke at various interests without binding them together. Surveying the mostly white, middle class room he described the Liberals as “the least diverse party in British politics”, clearly forgetting that the Greens exist. “That is unacceptable and we need to change it,” he added.

This theme was echoed by Farron as the pair sought to cover the breadth of liberalism’s interests around diversity, the environment and schooling. Though the leadership contest may not be a battle for the party’s soul there still is a sense that Farron is the social democrat choice and Lamb the classically liberal one.

With only eight Commons seats, one might well ask if such a thing matters. As a Liberal Democrat pointed out to your reporter in a Whitehall pub some weeks ago, few outside of the Westminster Village care a damn who wrote what in the Orange Book.

Whoever wins, the party will spend much of the next five years picking itself up, deciding which direction to turn and getting back to effective local campaigning. As Lamb optimistically put it: “I can confidently predict this will be one election that is won by a Liberal Democrat.”

Header Image – Norman Lamb and Tim Farron by Keith Edkins, Edited by The Right Dishonourable

Fleet Street fights over leaders’ debate polls

Fleet Street, Josep Renalias

The famous partisanship of Fleet Street emerged in full view in the wake of Thursday’s leaders’ debate, which saw the chiefs of the seven main parties face off against one another in a first for a British general election.

As the dust settled on Twitter following the two hours of rumbunctious squabbling the typesetters of Fleet Street were already deciding how they would pitch the result to their readers, with the Sun’s splash perhaps the most controversial:

Toeing the same line were the folks at the Torygraph, who lived up to the nickname with the following front page:

Such partisanship is hardly unknown on the Street of Shame, with the Murdoch press infamous for their attack on Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the general election of 1992.

Even so, Owen Jones of Guardian fame was suitably aggrieved, himself taking Twitter to remonstrate with the Tory pressmen:

As Jones indicates, the polls were not quite as unfavourable to Milipede the Younger as could have been garnered from the lead stories in the Sun or the Torygraph. Not that the Guardian was completely innocent of spin:

Of course, as any statistician could tell you, polls of polls tend to be superior to any single ballot, mitigating for the bias of the question or slanted sampling that has yet to be accounted for.

Poll Natalie Bennett (Green) Nick Clegg (Lib Dem) Nigel Farage (Ukip) Ed Miliband (Labour) Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) David Cameron (Tory)
ICM 3% 9% 19% 25% 2% 17% 24%
ComRes 5% 9% 21% 21% 2% 20% 21%
YouGov 5% 10% 20% 15% 4% 28% 18%
Survation 3% 6% 24% 25% 2% 15% 25%
Average 4% 8.5% 21% 21.5% 2.5% 20% 22%

On that basis the most plausible “winner” last night has to be Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader whom none of the Tory press are too keen on owing to her desire to split up the United Kingdom, abandon Trident and turn Britain into a socialist utopia (etc).

Thankfully others have since picked up on the far more boring story – these TV debates appear to have changed little, and we are still heading for a parliament more hung than a Californian porn star.

Image – Josep Renalias